Tennis animosity lingers amid Ukraine-Russia war, women players say

Ukrainian Marta Kostyuk (C) said the WTA has not responded to request for Ukrainian players to meet with the WTA board amid conflict with Russian and Belarusian players. Photo by Lukas Coch/EPA-EFE
1 of 6 | Ukrainian Marta Kostyuk (C) said the WTA has not responded to request for Ukrainian players to meet with the WTA board amid conflict with Russian and Belarusian players. Photo by Lukas Coch/EPA-EFE

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla., March 24 (UPI) -- Animosity has arisen between women tennis stars related to the invasion of Ukraine, players said at the Miami Open. Cold exchanges are now the norm between players from the war-torn countries, Russia, Belarus and Ukraine.

"Maybe, I myself, spread hate just by being here, I don't know," Ukrainian Marta Kostyuk said Thursday in Miami Gardens, Fla.


"Obviously, I mean, there is tension. We're not friends. We're at war at the moment."

On Thursday night, Kostyuk said initial Ukrainian player requests for additional dialogue with the Women's Tennis Association about the rift had gone unanswered.

On Friday, a WTA spokesperson told UPI that the tennis governing body board received the latest request and plans to meet with the players.

A day earlier Kostyuk lost and refused to congratulate Russian Anastasia Potapova -- skipping a customary handshake at the net -- after a straight-sets defeat.


Ukrainian flags had been draped over the sideline railings to support Kostyuk, who dedicated her first career title earlier this month to people "fighting and dying" in the war.

The WTA had issued a formal warning to Potapova on March 14 during the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif., after she wore a Russian soccer jersey. That indicated further action, starting with fines, could follow should she persist.

Russian and Belarusian players are allowed to compete on the WTA Tour -- without national affiliation. They remain banned from international competitions and weren't allowed to play in Wimbledon 2022 after Russian forces invaded Ukraine in February 2022.

Ukrainian Lesia Tsurenko withdrew from a match against Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka at that tournament. She later told Big Tennis Ukraine that she had a "panic attack" after discussing Russian and Belarusian players with WTA CEO Steve Simon.

World No. 1 Iga Swiatek, from Poland, called on the WTA to "focus more on helping" Ukrainian players during a news conference at Indian Wells.

No. 5 Daniil Medvedev, the top male Russian player, told reporters at that tournament that he felt "sorry" for the Ukrainian players. Ukrainians aren't seen much on the men's tour, with just one, Oleksi Krutykh, inside the Top 300.


In response to criticism from Tsurenko and Swiatek, the WTA reaffirmed its support for Ukraine, saying that it "strongly condemn[s]" actions "bought fourth by the Russian government."

The WTA added that it: "acknowledge[s] the emotions" of Ukrainian athletes, who "continue to manage" during the difficult time.

Kostyuk said Ukrainian players were first met with "silence" in their request to meet with the WTA board about the player conflict. Tsurenko's coach, Nikita Vlasov, previously mentioned the same request in an interview with Big Tennis Ukraine.

"No reply," Kostyuk said. "Nothing. Just silence."

Kostyuk declined to provide details when asked what the players will request from the WTA at the proposed meeting.

Belarusian Victoria Azarenka, a WTA players council member, disagreed with Swiatek's assessment for need of additional assistance for the Ukrainian players.

"Obviously, there are certain players who have different feelings and behaviors," Azarenka said. "Overall, I don't necessarily share the same opinion as Iga does.

"I would encourage her to look at the things that have been done before she makes comments."

Sabalenka said she feels "hatred" from members of some Ukrainian teams, and that players from the at-war countries try to ignore each other.


"I'm still talking to some of the Ukrainians, but there are some of the girls who are like really aggressive against us," Sabalenka said. "So, I'm just staying away from that."

Sabalenka said she started to feel guilty for a conflict that was on a whole other level.

"At the beginning, I was really struggling with it, because I really felt bad, like I did something," Sabalenka said.

"It's still not so good in the locker room with some of the Ukrainian girls. But I realized that it's not my fault and I did nothing bad to them. And I'm pretty sure that the rest of the Russian and Belarusian athletes did nothing to Ukrainians."

No. 5 Ons Jabeur of Tunisia said she doesn't get involved in the conflict, but she wished the tension wouldn't divide the sport's top players.

"This is an amazing sport and the only thing we can do is just to be there for each other and be kind to each other because it is the most important thing," she said.

The Miami Open will be held on the Hard Rock Stadium campus in Miami Gardens through April 2.


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